Less than a third of UN’s sustainability targets are well-developed, scientists claim

The UN's sustainability targets are too vague and diffuse to be effective, according to an independent asessment carried out by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC).

In a new assessment paper released on Friday, the two NGO’s concluded just 29% of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are ‘well developed’ while 54% should be ‘more specific’ and 17% require ‘significant work’.

The SDGs are a set of 17 internationals goals and 169 targets to be achieved by 2030, including the promotion of sustainable agriculture to tackle world hunger, the conservation of the world’s oceans and the establishment of sustainable industry and infrastructure.

However, the assessment finds the targets suffer from a lack of integration, some repetition and rely too much on vague, qualitative language rather than hard, measurable, time-bound, quantitative goals.

“Targets have to be robust, measurable and should effectively guide implementation,” said Anne-Sophie Stevance, lead coordinator of the assessmenet. “Our report clearly shows how targets could be consolidated and points to interlinkages that will be critical for managing synergies and avoiding trade-offs.”

Holistic policy

The UN goals reportedly address challenges in isolation from one another. Without a joined-up approach, action to meet one target could have unintended consequences on others. For example, an increase in agricultural land-use to help end hunger can lead to biodiversity loss, as well as overuse and/or pollution of water resources  which in turn could exacerbate food security concerns.

The scientists’ report highlights the need for an ‘end-goal’ to provide such a big picture vision: “The ‘ultimate end’ of the SDGs in combination is not clear, nor is how the proposed goals and targets would contribute to achieve that ultimate end,” write the authors.


They recommend that this meta-goal be “a prosperous, high quality of life that is equitably shared and sustained.”

“This is an opportunity for science to be a partner in the post-2015 development process and support evidence-based decision making. For science, that means connecting the dots across disciplines that usually work independently from each other,” said Stevance.

The report is being released ahead of a major UN meeting from February 17-20 where governments will negotiate an overall declaration which will serve as the big picture vision of the SDGs framework.

Last month, a seperate report from the UN Global Compact revealed a broad antipathy towards the SDGs from business leaders, with just 23% believing that the targets would lead to new business opportunities

Brad Allen

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